Commentary for Bern Riddle 31: De nympha


Date: Tue 09 Feb 2021
Matching Riddle: Bern Riddle 31: De nympha

The title of this riddle (De nympha) can mean several things. It can mean a young woman. It can mean one of the Nymphae, or sea nymphs, of classical mythology. It can mean the pupa of an insect. And it can mean water of some kind, for example, a body of water or a spring. I think you would agree that only the last of these can apply to this riddle!

Mercedes Salvador-Bello has argued that this riddle is probably about a kind of water container (Salvador-Bello, page 262, 466). I think that the solution of “siphon,” as favoured by several editors (see Glorie, page 577), is the most likely one. There is a problem, however—whereas the word nympha is grammatically feminine, the subject of the riddle is grammatically masculine. However, the word sipho (“siphon”) is masculine—lending credence to the idea that the title was changed at some point.

“A siphon used in the beer-brewing process. Photograph (by KVDP) from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)”

Siphons work using “physics magic” (actually a combination of atmospheric pressure and electrostatic force) to draw a liquid from a lower point to a higher one. The ancient Romans applied this on a massive scale with aqueducts, but the riddle is describing something much smaller—perhaps a water fountain or tap of some kind, or maybe a device for transporting wine from one container to another.

The first line plays upon the idea that the siphon has an insatiable thirst, and yet its lips never touch a cup. This leads into the image of a drunk who refuses to pay his way, playing upon the word ebrius (line 2), which can mean both “drunk” and “full.” This is contrasted with those occasions (lines 3-4) when its “belly” (venter) is “empty” (vacuus), during which it has “the ability to drink” (bibendi facultas). The idea seems to be that the empty vessel into which the liquid is decanted will siphon or “drink” it, whereas the full vessel will not.

The final two lines explain that the riddle-creature “refuses” or “rejects” (denegare) liquids when a thumb is lowered, but that its raising brings “rain-showers” (diffusos… nimbos). This could conceivably refer to the act of drinking from a cup or pouring out an amphora, but it seems more likely that this refers to the regulating of the siphon system using a thumb. Perhaps this also suggests a medieval version of the pollice verso, the thumbs up or down signal used by spectators of ancient Roman gladiators.

The general theme to this riddle is giving and receiving drinks. I don’t think that it is a bad riddle, but I wonder whether it has as much depth as many other Bern Riddles do. On the other hand, it might be that I haven’t managed to tap into its true meaning.


References and Suggested Reading:

Fr. Glorie, (ed.). Variae collectiones aenigmatum Merovingicae aetatis. Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 133A. Turnhout: Brepols, 1968. Page 577.

Salvador-Bello, Mercedes. Isidorean Perceptions of Order: The Exeter Book Riddles and Medieval Latin Enigmata. Morgantown, West Virginia University Press, 2015.

Tags: latin  Bern Riddles 

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